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Is too much hive inspection a bad thing?

Hive inspection is a hot topic among beekeepers. I can certainly understand new beekeepers wanting to open their hives and peruse the colony frame-by-frame. It is the very best way to learn about the social structure of a colony, the duties of individual bees, and the physical layout of pollen, honey, and brood.

Nevertheless, I believe it is easy to over inspect. I believe the integrity of the colony should not be compromised any more than necessary. An inspection is nothing less than a home invasion and before you do it, you should have a good reason for doing so.

In the United States, hives are required to have removable frames so that colonies can be inspected for disease. Although it is a good idea, it doesn’t mean that hives should be constantly violated. It means that hives can be inspected periodically or when things go awry.

So how often should hives be inspected? I can’t answer that. Speaking for myself, I seldom inspect frame-by-frame.

Most of the time you can tell everything you need know by standing near your hive and watching. You know a lot by how the colony behaves, the way it sounds, the way it smells, and the number and type of bees that come and go. You can tell even more by watching what they bring in, observing what they haul out, and assessing their temperament. If you walk by your hive on a summer’s evening and it purrs like an insulated engine room, smells like heaven, and the landing board is clean, why on earth would you open it up and disturb everything? It doesn’t make sense.

On the other hand, if the number of bees is decreasing, you see dead bees or pupae unattended on the landing board, you detect an odd odor, or your bees are unseasonably temperamental, open the hive. If you see robbers, predators, or leaking honey, open the hive. If you see lethargic, aimless, or deformed bees, open it up.

Again, speaking for myself, I inspect all my hives in late winter. Later, I open those I’ve decided to manipulate in some way like reversing, splitting, or re-queening. Although I open hives in spring and summer to add supers or remove them, I don’t actually inspect frame-by-frame unless I detect something amiss. If all goes well, I don’t inspect again until fall when I assess honey stores and queen activity just before winter. At that time, I may redistribute honey frames, combine colonies, add feed, or make other winter adjustments. In any case, I never inspect on a calendar schedule. That is, I never inspect just because two weeks has passed, or three. That’s crazy.

That said, I walk by my hives nearly every single day, both summer and winter. In the past, when I had out-yards, I checked on those once a week. There is always something to be learned about the inside of a hive by a quick check of the outside. But every time you start pulling out frames, you run the risk of killing the queen. You agitate the bees. You break propolis seals. You chill the brood. You jar the larvae or dry them. If you damage honey cells, both robbers and predators may pick up the odor and come running.

A lot of routine maintenance can be performed on a hive without pulling out all the frames. You can add feed, pollen patties, or mite treatments by just lifting the lid. You can look for swarm cells by tipping up a brood box and inspecting the bottom. You can assess honey stores by lifting the back end of a box and estimating the weight. You can check for mites on a sticky board. And if the hive is so full of bees you can’t see a blame thing, if it boils over when you lift the lid and the sky goes dark ’cause sunlight can’t get through the cloud of bees, then is it really necessary to check your brood pattern? Get real.

I realize it takes time to develop a feel for what is going on inside a hive. But I urge new beekeepers to strive for that. Compare what you see on the outside to what you find on the inside until you develop an intuition. It will happen sooner than you think. And in any case, use common sense. No animal wants its home torn apart for no good reason. So before you do it, have a clear idea of what your good reason is.

Rusty

Comments

@beekeeping.cc
Reply

@HoneyBeeSuite is my fav beek! I love how she doesn’t push a one-size fits all. Pay attention and learn something useful, she shares wisdom.

Doug
Reply

This is a very good subject. When I started out with beehives, I read the forums like everyone else. I got the impression that I had better inspect once a week to make sure the mites, the beetles, the this and the that were not killing my hives. I think I did more to set them back than anything out there ever could.
Now, if I see normal activity at the front of the hive, and when I lift the lid and see a lot of bees working away, I don’t tear the brood nest apart. I just check to see if I need to add another super or not. If they are having a problem, you get to the point that you can just sense it, in most cases, but not always. I do complete inspections every month and a half to two months. My bees just seem to do better. The thing is, I use a fogger with Thymol/FGMO for V and T mites. It does the job without any manipulation, so I am pretty confident by not bothering them much.

I do the same thing with my packages. A couple months later, I’m cutting queen cages out of comb. 99% of my packages make it fine. I think it’s because I leave them alone.

New beeks need to leave them alone as much as possible, as hard as it can be! But that is just my opinion, because it works for me.

I have thought about this very thing quite a bit, and I am actually considering setting up a hive with three boxes of drawn comb, and just leaving the bottom three boxes untouched, just adding and removing supers. Let them requeen and do their bidness as they see fit, just to see how it goes.

Les Shaw
Reply

No comment, just a question. I did a split, hive appears somewhat weak.. Saw the new queen today. Need to feed continuously through the summer? Do you ever remove the inner cover for ventilation?

Rusty
Reply

Hi Les,

I’m not sure which half looks weak, the original hive or the split. The split will look weak and get weaker until the brood starts to hatch. If you used a queen cell, it takes many weeks for the queen to produce brood. After hatch she spends 3-4 days maturing, 1-2 days mating (if the weather is good), then another 2-3 days before she starts to lay. The first eggs will then hatch 3 weeks later. So you are looking at four or five weeks before the first eggs hatch–and that is if you had good weather. During this time the adults are dying and the colony is getting smaller. If you added a mated queen, the time is shorter, but it will still be three to four weeks with no new bees.

If your split has lots of brood, however, this will help stabilize the population until the new queen’s brood comes along.

Sugar syrup helps the bees produce comb. If they have no comb, they must build it quickly in order to give the queen a place to lay her eggs. This late in the season, it is probably a good idea to feed syrup. If they are on drawn comb, it is not so important. Here’s a link to an article about feeding a new package; it is similar to feeding a split, especially if they have little comb.

I use a ventilated inner cover for ventilation. You can also use an upper entrance, or you can prop the lid upon with two small pieces of wood. In a few days I will be writing more about inner covers, both regular and ventilated ones. In the meantime, here is a link to more about ventilation and a photo of a screened (ventilated) inner cover.

Nancy
Reply

“And if the hive is so full of bees you can’t see a blame thing, if it boils over when you lift the lid and the sky goes dark ’cause sunlight can’t get through the cloud of bees, then is it really necessary to check your brood pattern?”

Rusty, (and with all respect, Doug) I tend to be non-intervention about a lot of things – “let browsing goats browse” – but have learned a few tough lessons that way.

That boiling-over hive that hummed and roared and smelled like heaven, swarmed in early July and I missed it. When we pulled a super, I did not check the brood box – “Oh let’s not bother them any more!” and the next time I did, they had a laying worker. They rejected a purchased queen and (evidently) two queens started from frames of brood, and now they’re going to be combined.

They were a gorgeous colony, and I guess I was complacent about them.

So now when an even-novicer-than-me beekeeper asks, “How often should I inspect?” I have a straight answer: ten days to two weeks, so that if you’ve lost a queen, you can replace her before workers start laying. Or, depending on the season, combine.

I understand about not pulling every frame and as Doug says, tearing up the brood nest. But if I pull two or three and see only sealed brood, no eggs or little “c’s,” I better keep looking.

This is my first experience with laying workers, and it has to be the biggest pain in the butt in all of beekeeping. And our local experts all say, “There’s no good answer.” (They’ve also used up 4 frames of honey feeding all those drones.)

There are always other perspectives, thanks for sharing so many!
Nan
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, KY

Sara
Reply

I just wanted to give my sincere gratitude. There is no local bee association and I would have to drive across 2 Texas counties to reach one. So I have been ‘on my own.’ I have bee books, I watch videos, I do all I can… but I could not find an answer on how often to inspect! With no local experts, it was scary. All my books make it sound like if I don’t locate that queen or check for disease EVERY week I will get what I deserve. THANK YOU for clarifying (ALL of you) on what ‘makes sense’. This is my first time so NOTHING comes naturally yet. Your guidance was MUCH needed. I just wish words thanked you enough.

All my heart,

Sara

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Sara. And best of luck with your bees.

Liz
Reply

Hi Rusty and fellow beekeepers!

It’s just spring here in Australia and its my first with my colony as I got them last summer.
I have a bottom brood box, one super that’s ready to harvest and i have just popped an extra super on.
I noticed last weekend that the brood is coming up into the Burr comb between the brood box and the first super. This is the first time I have opened the hive since winter – they built so much comb and got so much honey! We have mild winters here.

Should I get rid of this? There are so many conflicting opinions out there!
XX

Rusty
Reply

Liz,

Burr comb between boxes doesn’t hurt the bees but it can be irritating for the beekeeper. It is harder to inspect and harder to make changes when everything is glued together. Also, I don’t know if you are using a queen excluder or not, but if the queen is laying in the space just under the super, she will soon be laying in the super.

If it were me, I would remove the burr comb regardless of what it contains. Just be careful that the queen isn’t in there when you remove it, because you don’t want to injure her.

I don’t see much reason for conflicting opinions here: either you’re okay with leaving it there or you’re not. It’s a personal decision that doesn’t have much affect on the bees.

Rod
Reply

Rusty, I hear it mentioned a lot that there is a federal law requiring bee keepers to use only hives that can be opened and inspected. I can find no such law but just curious. Like your comments on inspecting hives.

Rusty
Reply

Rod,

I don’t know about federal law, but I believe each of the 50 states prohibits hives without removable frames. The idea is that the beekeeper must be able to inspect for disease.

Matthew
Reply

I live in the UK, and just found this site. I have just got my first hive and have been on the usual local association course that tells me about checking frame by frame each week (except in winter obv). This always sounded a bit intrusive and dangerous to the queen. Then I read this article – what a sensible breath of fresh air! It makes total sense. Swarm warnings are what I am worried about missing, but yes, just tipping the brood frame could do this. Thanks for this article!

Matthew
Reply

Regarding inspecting the bottom of frames by lifting the brood box up – nice idea, but in practice I find the top frames are stuck to the bottom frames, which leads to carnage if you try to do this? Or would you only recommend this on the bottom brood box? Seems like it would be extremely heavy to do that with the whole hive on top of it?

Rusty
Reply

Matthew,

I lift the back end of the higher brood box (I usually have just two) and look inside to see colony strength and look for swarm cells on the bottoms of the upper frames. I never have issues with the two stories being stuck together. Maybe you have too much space between boxes? I don’t know; it’s not generally a problem.

Matthew
Reply

Thanks for the quick reply as ever Rusty

Yes, all 4 of my hives stick themselves together like this. Two different hive types too. I live in Scotland – maybe it’s a Scottish bee thing! They just love building that burr comb …..

Never mind, I can inspect the box carefully knowing this.

On a related note…..

I have double-brood-box hives as discussed. Am I pretty much completely safe in assuming that if they are going to build queen/swarm cells then they are going to do it in the top brood box? If so I can leave the bottom box alone, which is what I want to do.

Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Matthew,

In a double brood box, the bees usually build swarm cells on the bottom edge of the upper frames, and sometimes along the sides of those combs too. But the keyword is “usually.” I look there first. If I see a lot of swarm cells there, I will look further. They can put them anywhere, especially in the places you least suspect.

Matthew
Reply

I just had a “doh” moment. I am a new beekeeper so forgive me.

I perhaps haven’t been careful enough to ensure that the frames in the upper brood box are directly lined up above the frames in the lower brood box. I haven’t seen that as a necessary thing to do in any book, but I guess if they aren’t aligned then the bee space would be messed up and burr comb would be the result …. ?

Rusty
Reply

Matthew,

I don’t think it would be a problem unless you have lots of space between frames. Many folks like to space the frames evenly across the box, especially when the frames are new, to promote evenly drawn combs. Some even use a contraption called a frame spacer. Once the frames are drawn you really don’t need to worry about spacing. So yes, that might have been the problem.

Matthew
Reply

Thanks Rusty!

I am seeing quite a few queen cups in the upper brood box, but nothing seems to be in them so I will leave them be – probably just the bees practicing. No queen cells that I can see in the upper brood box. Getting pretty late in the season so I will assume all is well and leave the lower brood box alone 🙂

Rusty
Reply

Sounds like a plan.

Matthew
Reply

Thanks – I use Hoffman frames, so spacing shouldn’t be an issue, but I haven’t been as disciplined as I should be about keeping them lined up vertically with the frames below. Will be better in future.

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